“The Glass Castle”, Dysfunctional Families, and Love

For a long time, my identity revolved around my dysfunctional family. Even if you met me in college, I probably introduced myself as, “Hi, I am Britany and I come from a dysfunctional family” (sorry to anyone that I unloaded upon), and it has only been recently that those stories (albeit sometimes very entertaining) are not the first things I think to share about myself. However, as my sister and I watched, “The Glass Castle”, I cried. In fact, I didn’t just cry–I bawled, because so many themes of growing up in a dysfunctional family, and the complicated emotions that stem from that, deeply resonated with me (and my sister because I’m pretty sure I heard her sniffling for the last twenty minutes as well).

For me, there is always a tension between knowing that everyone is going to die someday so our time together is very limited, and needing to set healthy boundaries with people. Like, I never want to be in the position Billy Crudup is in when his dad is dying in “Big Fish”, where I have a bunch of regrets for not spending enough time because I was being stubborn and immature, or for forgiving my family earlier in my life until it is basically too late, but then again, giving in and sweeping everything under the rug can be just as emotionally taxing. Jeanette experiences this same tension as she finds out her dad is dying–does she take her fiance’s advice, and distance herself from her family, because they are not healthy for her, and cause her so much pain and frustration, OR does she recognize her dad won’t be around forever and try to cherish the remaining time left together, despite any past wrong doings?

No matter how dysfunctional our families are, “The Glass Castle” reminds us that these families are inescapable–so much of who we are and where we come from is interwoven into the fabrics of our lives, and that by denying those people and their circumstances, we are also denying an foundational part of our own stories. In my experience, people who come from less-dysfunctional families have a difficult time understanding why you hold onto something that they perceive makes you suffer so. Of course, from their perspective, it comes from a place of love–it pains them to see you so upset, so their advice is always, “Just cut them off”, “Stop worrying about it”.  In the movie, Jeanette Walls’ fiance attempts to distance her from her parents, and while she gives in for a period of time, she eventually realizes that, by trying to erase her parents from her life, she cannot be authentic to herself.

And, as we see from Jeanette Walls, our dysfunctional roots can be overcome. As a 20-Something who might have a kid someday, one of my biggest fears is that I will do something, innocently and unknowingly, that will screw up my child. I will make a casserole dish one day and accidentally use dish soap instead of water–and my kids will forever be scarred and unable to eat any kind of casserole. Or, I will one day forget to pick my kid up from soccer practice, he/she gets frostbite, and forever has abandonment issues. Perhaps I might buy my kid a really nerdy t-shirt that he/she gets made fun of in, and incurs self-esteem issues. Or, I spoil The Tooth Fairy too early and my kid experiences a loss of childhood way too early. But, as Jeanette Walls and her siblings reminds us, dysfunction is overcome able. We do not have to let our crappy childhoods or pasts define us. While we cannot always prevent crappy situations from happening, we can always control how we react to them, and we always have the ability to break those dysfunctional habits and be successful.

But, perhaps the theme in “The Glass Castle” that got me most choked up was when the movie flashbacked through all of the scenes of Jeanette and her dad–and just how much love was present. Walls writes, “No child is born a delinquent. They only became that way if nobody loved them when they were kids. Unloved children grow up to be serial murderers or alcoholics.” I do agree–those children who come from dysfunctional families and also feel abandonment, un-wantedness, and illegitimate probably have a much more difficult time overcoming and adapting to the normal world. So, while her dad certainly was an alcoholic, probably a habitual liar, selfish at some points–he did love his children, and while he may not have always had the capacity to act in the most socially accepted ways, he was unpredictable, and he did steal her college fund, the fact that his heart was (mostly) in the right place allowed them to overcome their circumstances. Like, it was probably not the best idea to throw Jeanette in the water to “teach her to swim”, but his philosophy was, “if you don’t want to sink, you better figure out how to swim”. Even though the family dinner ended in a black eye for Jeanette’s fiance, her dad felt like he was protecting her–an act that would be categorized under love. And, it probably was not the most sanitary environment to live in a house without running water, but in his philosophy,  “Rich city folks, he’d say, lived in fancy apartments, but their air was so polluted they couldn’t even see the stars”–he was giving his children an esoteric and formidable experience. Love CAN conquer all.

Like the Walls’ tribe, growing up in a dysfunctional family, I’ve definitely had my fair share of sleepless nights, emotional breakdowns, anxiety attacks regarding the future–but some really beautiful things have come about as well–I’m so thankful for my relationship with my siblings, I’m grateful for the perspective I’ve gained on the world, and most importantly, I’m so lucky that I am able to understand the significance of, recognize the acts in, and experience feelings of love that I am–it makes my interaction with the world that much richer–and I would never have it any other way.

(My review of the movie: worth watching; while I think the book is better than the movie, and parts of the movie are a little slow, I appreciated the music, film techniques, casting of characters, etc., and obviously think the story is touching–I’ve also been in love with Joel P. West’s song, “Summer Storm”)

“Life is a drama full of tragedy and comedy,” Mom told me. “You should learn to enjoy the comic episodes a little more.”

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